The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

Commencement at a large American university.

MAY 8, 1977

Sunday morning in a wretched motel, waiting for the commencement ceremonies. The motel barricaded like a fortress against the fresh air and sunshine of the spring morning. Not a window open. Everything locked up tight, the air-conditioners roaring incessantly. Unventilated corridors, smelling of stale tobacco. An overcrowded cafeteria, with sloppy service. And through the sealed-up windows, a scene of asphalted desolation such as only the American developer, given his head, can produce: a Ford dealer's enormous headquarters, lying amid its parking lots like an island in a sea; warehouses; factory chimneys; tall buildings in the distance; a bank, empty, still, and similarly barricaded by vast empty parking lots; sloping sides of turnpike elevations; but not a tree, not a pedestrian, not a sign of actual life except, here and there, a moving car, its occupant likewise walled off against nature in his own tiny, lonely, air-conditioned world. Not a touch of community; not a touch of sociability. Only the endless whirring and roaring of the air-conditioners, the wild wasting of energy, the ubiquitous television set, the massive bundle of advertising pulp that masquerades under the name of a Sunday newspaper. All unnatural; all experience vicarious; all activity passive and uncreative. And this wasteland extending, like a desert, miles and miles in every direction. A fine end of the world we have created in the American city.

Later. The commencement is over. Matters of memory, now, are the chance introductions in the robing room; the smell of the gymnasium—right out of St. John's Military Academy (1917-1921) and Princeton (1921-1925); the hot, sun-baked stadium; the yelling, whistling students; the dreadful list of doctoral dissertation topics in the program ("A Comparison of the Academic Achievement of Sophomores Living in University Residence Halls With That of Sophomores Living Off-Campus in Selected State Universities"); the inevitable appeal to come and teach ("We hoped we could get you here"); the empty student faces.

And yet, and yet: the vitality of these places; the truly superior faculty; the magnificent library; the unflagging belief in the country; also, the many people who have read my books and speak kindly to me about them. Truly, this country whipsaws you.

The official personality was, as it seems, always the enemy of the personal one, so that the years as ambassador to Belgrade (1961-1963) were devoid of such observations of the local scene as would fit into these pages. But these Belgrade years left warm friendships, and returns to that city in later years were vivid experiences, replete with memories.

MARCH 28 1982

Today, with Saleh (The embassy chauffeur of earlier years) driving, we were taken out, as Maria A.'s guests, to the restaurant on the road to Avala where several years ago we had spent a memorable and hilarious evening with the J. 's. On the way we stopped first to see the beautiful new park just across the Sava, where that great river joins the Danube. Then we went on to the similar place at Topcider. The weather was magnificent: the first fine warm spring day. Everywhere people were out enjoying the advent of spring: children playing, people strolling and sitting on benches, balls being kicked around, lovers caressing—all wonderfully informal, natural, unselfconscious. This obviously is one of the rare happy times Serbia has known.

At the restaurant there was a similar milling-around of people. I was recognized, embraced, and kissed by the majordomo. We sat outside on the terrace, in the sun. Next to us we discovered, to our surprise, a whole company of American officers—this year's members of the National War College, as it turned out, on a tour of Europe. These insisted that I, as an erstwhile (in fact, the first) "deputy for foreign affairs" at that institution, be photographed together with them (something that would, I am sure, have been greeted with stupefaction by the present Secretary of Defense had he known of it). Plum brandy was brought, and marvelous freshly baked bread, as fine as any that could be found anywhere in the world. There followed wine from the grapes of the premises, and course after course of Serbian meats.

A young boy, detaching himself from a large family party at a nearby table, came over and interrogated us sternly, in his schoolboy English, on our provenance and status, running back repeatedly to report the results to the whole family.

The sun shone benevolently. To both sides of us the land fell off, and there was a wide view—on one side off to the lovely hills of Sumadija, on the other out onto the great plains of the valley of the Sava. It was a good moment.

In the autumn of 1984 there was a visit to friends living on the Italian island of Ischia, where I had never previously been.

SEPTEMBER 23, 1984

Annelise and I walked down to the center of the village this morning to change money. Traffic, at this time of day, was permitted on the main street, so that in addition to the normal human hubbub there were cars and motorcycles trying to push their way through the crowds. This obviously involved dangers and what in other human climates would have been experienced as annoyances. But here it all seemed to be cheerfully accepted.

The bank was closed, but we, having been properly briefed by our hosts before departure, found a tiny, incredibly cramped and crowded little one-room grocery store, where the patron, after running across the street to check the rate at the window of the bank, performed the transaction for us with great good humor, and sent us on our way.

We pushed our way to the place where the street ended in a sort of promontory, from which one could look down from three sides onto the sea. A stiff wind was blowing in from the west, the heavy seas thundering and disintegrating on the rocks and seawall below us. The center of the promontory was occupied by a seventeenth-century church—la Chiesa del Soccorso—dedicated to the Virgin in her capacity as the one who aids seafarers in extremity. The church stood facing the village, its apse raised like a protection against the sea. Inside, the image of the protecting Virgin was there, above the altar—on one arm the Christ Child, the other brandishing what appeared to be some sort of a club. One of her feet was planted firmly on a prostrate male figure whose identity I could only imagine, while at her side, by the other foot, stood the figure of another child, apparently a boy, whose identity I could not imagine at all.

I thought on the way back of the qualities of this very Italian place: the incongruous mixture of tolerance, naiveté, overcrowding, sociability, family solidarity, localism, acceptance of modernism in its most hideous forms and yet some sort of an inner self-defense against it—life led, in short, in the small dimension, full of pettiness, no doubt, and not without its small cruelties and injustices, but borne along by the broad, wise, disillusioned charity of the Catholic Church, by the comforting familiarities of family life, and by the unvarying, reassuring support of the Christian sacraments. And I thought: So long as it lasts, imperfect as it is, all this perhaps is not the worst of worlds, and perhaps is even the best that one could hope for—a messy life, full of dirt, overcrowding, confusion, and disorder, but with its failings, like its possibilities, limited by the intimacy of its localistic orientation; and all of it, at least in the personal sense, intensely human. Better, in any case, than the great, highly developed, impersonal modern societies, with their lordly ambitions, their nuclear weapons, and their vast, technologically advanced abuse of the natural environment.

"Little" is of course not always beautiful—that is an exaggeration. It is also not wildly hopeful. But it is also not monstrously destructive. And it at least allows for those occasional wonderful outbursts of the human capacity for creating beauty, such as the Renaissance, that have accounted for so much of the beauty that still surrounds us in this place. So I must not, I thought, hold this littleness in disrespect.

DECEMBER 9, 1987

I have been back in Washington for these past three days—not my Washington, of course, but let us say the Washington that might have appeared to anyone else who was born in 1904, had seen something of that city in the days of his maturity, had then died at a normal age, but had been permitted, by some extraordinary indulgence of Providence, to be resurrected from the dead and to revisit this scene, together with others, of his brief passage across the face of history.

I on this occasion found the city cowering under a faint, cold December sunshine, but roaring more than ever with surface and airplane traffic; and I viewed it, resurrected as I was from the past, with a slight shudder, and an offer of thanks to Providence that I was absolved from contributing further to its active life.

Ten days ago I reiterated in these notes my periodic complaints about the endless series of visits I seemed to have to make, for one reason or another, outside Princeton; and I described them as "empty formality: nothing accomplished, nothing to show for it." Today's events—or one of them, at least—put those self-pitying words in their place as the overdramatization they were.

These events were connected with the historic visit to Washington of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. The first of them contained, to be sure, no surprises. It was a great luncheon tendered by Secretary of State and Mrs. Shultz for Gorbachev and his wife—an affair (as we used to say in the old diplomatic service) of some two hundred and fifty "plates." I shall not go into the political aspects of this affair or the speeches given by the principals; all that will take its place in the overabundant historical record, to enjoy there the privacy of a deep oblivion. I recall only that we waited an interminable time for those principals to make their appearance, and that I sat next to a lady from somewhere in the Southwest, the wife of some prominent politician, I believe, whose ignorance of my identity was as great as mine of hers and, since neither of us was particularly interested in enlightening the other on this matter, remained that way to the end.

The afternoon appointment was another matter. It was a reception for Gorbachev at the Soviet embassy, to which I, in company with one or two hundred other Americans, had been invited by the Russians. (How these persons were chosen by the Soviet hosts I do not know. The press, always anxious to make a story out of it, alleged afterward that we were "the intellectuals," although I saw there a number of eminent Republicans, including a couple of former Secretaries of State, who would probably resent being thus described—and in some instances perhaps not without reason.)

The function took place at the Russian embassy building on Sixteenth Street, right next to what was once the Racquet Club, where I sometimes went to swim on the dark winter afternoons of 1926. After penetrating the successive lines of security guards deployed for several blocks around the place, we guests had our credentials carefully but politely examined at the entrance to the building and were then taken upstairs and shown into a large and beautiful chamber, of ballroom ambiance, already densely packed with people.

Remembering my wife's admonitions not to stand uncomfortably in the background as I normally do on such occasions but to insist on meeting the guest of honor and adding my particular set of banalities to the others he was condemned to endure, I decided to make the effort. So I pushed through the crowd and eventually squeezed myself into the small circle of photographers, journalists, and other pushy guests surrounding the distinguished visitor. The latter, whom I was meeting for the first time, appeared to recognize me, and amazed me by throwing out his arms and treating me to what has now become the standard statesman's embrace. Then, still holding on to my elbows, he looked me seriously in the eye and said: "Mr. Kennan. We in our country believe that a man may be the friend of another country and remain, at the same time, a loyal and devoted citizen of his own; and that is the way we view you."

I cannot recall what I said in response to this statement. Whatever it was, it was wholly inadequate.

We soon moved to another room, filled with small tables. Gorbachev, seated at one of these tables, delivered himself of a lengthy (too lengthy for American tastes, short by Russian standards) impromptu address. The table to which I was assigned included, as I recall it, Ken Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, and a lady of most striking appearance, who chain-smoked Danish cigars and appeared to be rather bored with the whole performance. I was later told that I should have recognized her—as the widow of a famous rock singer.

My ears failed me badly during Gorbachev's long talk, and I amused myself by fidgeting with the earphones and trying to figure out which was harder to catch: the speaker's Russian or the plodding artificialities of the simultaneous translation. But actually, I could not concentrate on what he was saying. His words to me still rang in my ears. And as I reflected on them, the whole sixty years of my involvement with Soviet affairs (which included, at one point, being banned from Russia as an "enemy of the Soviet people") revolved before the mind's eye; and I could think of no better conclusion to this entire chapter of activity—at least none from the Soviet side—than this extraordinarily gracious and tactful statement, worthy, when you think of it, of the finest standards of royal courtesy. I reflected that if you cannot have this sort of recognition from your own government to mark the end of your involvement in such a relationship, it is nice to have it at least from the onetime adversary.


I am startled, as I look the bleakness of the impressions of my own country. A reader might think that I saw in it only ugliness, vulgarity, and deterioration. I am sorry about this. Had I not had my own sort of love for the place, these imperfections on its surface would not have hit me so hard or found such abundant record in these scribblings.

I am not oblivious of the fact that the United States of 1988-1989 has its glorious sides. But these seem to me to lie primarily in two areas: in the magnificence of those purely natural beauties that have not yet fallen victim to commercial development; and then in the personalities of many fellow citizens I have been privileged to know. But natural beauty alone without the human element, much as it may offer for admiration and wonder, offers nothing for interpretation and makes poor subject matter for the traveling diarist, as it does for the artist. And as for the people: yes—many have engaged my admiration, along with a considerable number who have engaged the opposite. But to depict them individually is the task of the novelist, not of the traveler—and particularly not of the traveler moving through regions where he has no personal acquaintances at all and where he sees, for the most part, only masses of anonymous figures with whom he has no possibility of interacting.

I view the United States of these last years of the twentieth century as essentially a tragic country, endowed with magnificent natural resources that it is rapidly wasting and exhausting, and with an intellectual and artistic intelligentsia of great talent and originality. For this intelligentsia the dominant political forces of the country have little understanding or regard. Its voice is normally silenced or outshouted by the commercial media. It is probably condemned to remain indefinitely, like the Russian intelligentsia in the nineteenth century, a helpless spectator of the disturbing course of its nation's life. If love of country includes this sort of concern for its future, then I, too, love this particular country, and am a part of it.

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